Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Obituary: UMass senior Jacob Johnson remembered as an intellectual, a budding journalist and a kind person

Johnson remembered by family, friends, peers and professors

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Jacob Johnson, a senior at the University of Massachusetts, will be remembered as a freethinker, an intellectual and a kind, good person.

Just a week before graduating from UMass, Johnson, 21, died in Amherst on May 4. Johnson was identified as the body recovered by Massachusetts State Police Dive Team members and several local divers in Puffer’s Pond at 5:43 p.m. on Friday, May 4. No foul play is suspected in his death according to Mary Carey, communications director for the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office.

The East Bridgewater, Massachusetts native loved the outdoors, was interested in politics and had a promising future in journalism. He was known by many for his wit, kindness and curiosity.

Jhonna Egan, a senior communication disorders major, was friends with Johnson through middle school, high school and college. She remembers him as a good friend — someone she could talk endlessly with no matter the distance or time apart.

Jacob Johnson and Jhonna Egan, among others, pose for a photo during their trip to Costa Rica their senior year of high school in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Jhonna Egan)

“We always had a good connection. He was just an easy person to talk to. Despite the fact that life gets in the way and we become different people, we could just connect on that level. We could just talk about anything, literally anything, for hours,” Egan said.

“He was great,” she added.

Egan recalled meeting with Johnson recently and reconnecting. The two were going through a “dramatic crisis” in their lives, she joked, and they both sat in her room where they talked for hours while Egan packed her suitcase as she prepared to study abroad.

“That was always when we had to reconnect, because we’re both such talkers, so we can just sit there and talk about our drama for forever,” Egan said.

Johnson and Egan became friends in eighth grade at Gordon W. Mitchell Middle School and had nearly all the same classes together in high school at East Bridgewater Jr./Sr. High School.

The two grew closer during their senior year of high school when they went to Costa Rica together as part of their environmental science class. It was such a small class — six people, Egan noted — that they were all able to become close friends. The entire class visited different conservation sites across the country on the approximately 10-day trip, bonding in the process.

Jacob Johnson, Jhonna Egan and their peers at their senior prom in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Jhonna Egan)

“It was a lot more of us actually just having fun and hanging out and getting super close,” she said. “I remember one night, one of our hotel rooms had a piano in it and we just hung out, and one of the kids played piano and we just sang Kanye all night.”

Four years later, their class still stays in touch, Egan said — and Johnson did too, before his death. Egan and her former classmates are in a group chat together, which they’re now using to exchange pictures and memories of Johnson.

“We’ve all gone in completely different directions, but that just always connects us,” she said about their senior year trip.

Kyle Dwyer of Bridgewater had stayed close with Johnson since they first met in their fifth-grade class at Gordon W. Mitchell Middle School. Dwyer will remember him fondly as someone who had a lot of situational humor, was very sharp and cared deeply about First Amendment rights.

“If he was really interested in something, he would research it, ask questions on it. He was very driven when it came to subjects that he was interested in,” Dwyer said.

Journalism Professor Karen List had Johnson as a student in her “Journalism Law” course last spring and can attest to this same passion.

List was struck by how intellectually curious Johnson was. Although he was very quiet during class, she noted that after class he would email her asking about what extra reading he could do. He would also send List readings that he found interesting and say, “Karen, have you seen this?”

“We had this wonderful conversation outside of class that really showed me how deeply he thought about these issues, particularly First Amendment issues,” List said. “And so, we shared that, and that was nice.”

List’s course is very challenging, and she doesn’t expect people to read beyond the required reading. “But Jake always did,” List said.

“He wanted to engage himself,” she said. “He was a freethinker in that way. He wanted to spend his time reading about what interested him, and he really cared deeply about a lot of things — what really matters: peace in the world, the environment, the climate for freedom of expression — those big things. That’s what he cared about.”

“He was a great student and a good person,” she added.

Egan also described Johnson as someone who came across as quiet but actually had a lot of opinions and a lot to add to a conversation. He would never fail to share his opinion, she said, because he was so well-spoken.

“You’d think he’s quiet, but he’s not,” Egan said. “He has a lot to say. He always had a lot to say.”

“He’s soft-spoken almost, but once you get to know him, there’s so much more to him,” she added.

Sam Allen, a friend from Johnson’s hometown whose family is fairly close to Johnson’s, also remembers him for his wit and intelligence.

“Jake was just always a kind, funny and witty guy,” Allen said.

Journalism Professor Josh Braun is thankful he had the opportunity to teach Johnson in one of his last courses of his college career, “Journalism Ethics.”

“He was a very good student. He was invariably articulate and thoughtful. He thought very independently, his answers would often be different from those of his peers and the conversations that ensued were always really interesting, but also really warm and inviting,” Braun said.

“He just was someone who had this unique personality trait of the more you argue with him, the more you like him,” he said. “He was a really good guy.”

Braun witnessed the positive impact Johnson had on the students around him. “Students who worked with him in the class on group projects and things like that were incredibly impressed by him,” he said.

“I know in this moment when people are graduating and about to go out into the world and are reflecting on who they’ve become in their college career, to suddenly lose one of those people who was such a key part — not only such a wonderful person in themselves, but such a pillar of their community and an important part of their selves — it’s a really devastating thing,” Braun said.

Henry Brechter, a junior journalism major, first met Johnson in professor Madeleine Blais’ “Readings in Journalism” course his freshman year. The two bonded over their unbeknownst connection to Plymouth County, realizing that they were each from the rivaling towns of Bridgewater and East Bridgewater as the class went around the room doing introductions. Brechter credits that moment as the beginning of their friendship.

“That was a cool way to get to know him. We didn’t know each other previously, but hearing a voice from home was nice; it kind of helped me settle in,” he said.

Johnson and Brechter both landed co-ops at The Boston Globe last year — Johnson on the metro desk and Brechter on sports. Brechter said the two didn’t sit near each other, as they reported for different sections, but they saw each other almost every night, catching up on the day as they made Keurig coffee late into their odd-hour shifts.

“I think it kind of showed both of us that our hard work had kind of paid off to that point, but at the same time, we weren’t going to get complacent. I know Jake worked really hard, and I worked really hard,” Brechter said.

Just last week, Brechter caught up with Johnson at the U-Pub one last time, “talking about how excited we were to get back to The Globe and keep writing,” he said.

Brechter recalled the way Johnson’s eyes lit up as they talked about the future.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, especially in this field, but seeing him talk about The Globe and how excited he was to be back on the metro desk, chasing stories and working around the clock, I felt like both of us had a really promising path ahead of us,” he said.

“I know it’s a very sad time and hard to deal with — I’m still shocked by it and everything — but he was a great friend, he was very much positive, he helped with personal things we worked on, he was very inspiring,” Dwyer said. “He was a great role model and just a really great person.”

Hayley Johnson can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @hayleyk_johnson. Jackson Cote can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @jackson_k_cote.  

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